I arrived at the Kettering Foundation in June 2009 after 30 years as a newspaper journalist, armed with some background on the foundation’s work and a question that I couldn’t answer about my former occupation.
I spent most of my newspaper career working as an editor in charge of opinion pages. In that work, calling on the public to do something—rise up, ask questions, demand answers, take action—is part of the routine. Most of the time, maybe 98 or 99 times out of 100, the public goes on about its business with no indication that it has read or heard about your call to action. But sometimes, that once or twice out of 100, the public would rise up and not only do what you had called for but act independently in ways that were totally unexpected in both their creativity and effectiveness.
I could never figure out what made those occasions different. I couldn’t see that our editorials on those occasions were any better or even markedly different than our work on other occasions. So what, I wondered, had happened in those instances?
I groped for an answer in a paper I wrote for Kettering in 2008 (now, I am thankful to say, it is consigned to the depths of the foundation’s archives). I didn’t get very far, though; I simply didn’t know enough to begin to figure out what the answer might be.
Now, after two years of working here at the foundation, I’ve begun to get an idea about the answer. The answer lay not in what I and other journalists did, but in what was going on among the people who read the newspaper. The difference was civic life.
That concept dawned on me after I had begun wrapping my brain around one of Kettering’s fundamental insights: the six democratic practices. These practices are laid out in various places in the foundation’s publications, most notably perhaps in David Mathews’ Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy.
When I first came across the Six Practices, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. They seemed like a metaphor or a theoretical construct. They kept popping back into my brain, though, and at some point several months after coming to the foundation full-time it dawned on me that they weren’t theoretical or metaphorical at all, but rather a description of life as it is lived by real people in real communities.
I also realized that the way I had been thinking about why the public responded to some editorials put the question backwards. It wasn’t the public response to the editorials that was different. It was that the editorials resonated with (or, in Kettering—speak, aligned with) something that was already going on in the community, completely unbeknownst to me and the other journalists involved.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to share this insight with journalists (and, more recently, with other professionals). I’ve tried various approaches over the past few months with opinion journalists in this country and with health journalists in South Africa. I’ve used a different version with broadcasters and still another version with a small group of legislators. I’m on the lookout for other experiments in the same vein—in all instances, beginning with the Six Practices. Two years into this work, I regard these practices as the core of what the Kettering Foundation has to say about the world.
I’m also increasingly sure that we have only begun to explore the ways in which the Six Practices open up opportunities for real people working on real problems in real communities. Working on that should keep me busy for the next couple of years at least.
David Holwerk is Director of Communications and resident scholar at the Kettering Foundation.
SIX DEMOCRATIC PRACTICES
Democratic practices are ways citizens can work together—even when they disagree—to solve common problems. They are:
- Naming problems to reflect the things people consider valuable and hold dear, not expert information alone.
- Framing issues for decision making that not only takes into account what people value but also lays out all the major options for acting fairly—that is with full recognition of the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
- Making decisions deliberatively to move opinions from first impressions to more shared and reflective judgment.
- Identifying and committing civic resources, assets that often go unrecognized and unused.
- Organizing civic actions so they complement one another, which makes the whole of people’s efforts more than the sum of the parts.
- Learning together all along the way to keep up civic momentum.
When governments and other institutions align their routines so that they encourage these practices, they can do their work more effectively because their efforts are reinforced by what citizens do.